Police Procedures in Mysteries
Veteran cop and bestselling writer Hugh Holton takes a look at the police in crime & mystery novels
As the mystery story usually involves the commission of a crime, throughout
the history of it development, from the fictional exploits of Sherlock Holmes
and C. Auguste Dupin to the present, police officers have played an
integral part in the plots of such stories. At the turn of the century,
Sherlock Holmes had Inspector Lestrade of Scotland yard, who served as a
somewhat dim-witted foil for the brilliant Holmes. If Lestrade wasn't going to
Holmes to ask for help in solving a case, he was on the scene of the crime
butchering the evidence until Holmes arrived to show him the way.
As the genre progressed to the era following World War I, we find Hercule
Poirot giving his assistance to any number of police officials. However,
Poirot was not a gifted amateur sleuth, but actually a retired police
official, who kept his hand in by solving the odd case, such as the
intricately contrived murders in Agatha Christie novels as Murder on the
Orient Express and the Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
In the hardboiled mystery genre, characterized by the works of Dashiell
Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane, cops continue to be mere foils
for private eyes Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and Mike Hammer. Often these cops,
like Holmes's Lestrade, get in the way of the private eye in his attempts to
crack the case, or they exhibit less than professional law enforcement traits.
In Chandler's 1943 novel The Lady in the Lake, Philip Marlowe encounters a
Lieutenant Degarmo in Bay City, California. Marlowe is looking for a missing
woman and, as usual, the local police are being less than cooperative.
Degarmo is described as "...the big cop with the dusty blond hair...the
metallic blue eyes and the savage, lined face...." In character, as a
wise-cracking private eye, Marlowe hints that Degarmo is on the take. Degarmo
proceeds to slap the P.I. silly. Marlowe simply takes the pasting in stride
and goes on to solve the case.
In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade has a couple of classic confrontations with
the good cop, "barrel-bellied" Detective Tom Polhaus, and the bad cop,
Lieutenant Dundy. When Dundy tires to get tough with Spade during an
encounter in the private eye's apartment, Sam not only demands that the
lieutenant obtain a warrant before conducting a search, but also refuses to
sit down when "asked" to do so by the "bad" cop. The Maltese Falcon was first
published in 1929, and I wonder how Sam Spade would have dealt with the
ham-handed Lieutenant Degarmo?
, the watchword should be
"accuracy." I must admit that as a full-time working cop, I'm seeing more
authenticity than I've ever noticed before in crime fiction, and I assure you,
I've been watching. In Lawrence Saunders' 1973 novel The First Deadly Sin, I
was so impressed with the authenticity of Captain Edward X. Delaney and the
author's depiction of the New York Police Department that I was actually
inspired to become a writer. My idol, as far as the police procedural in the
mystery field goes, is William F. Caunitz, a retired NYPD lieutenant, whose
bestselling novels One Police Plaza, Exceptional Clearance and Cleopatra Gold, to name a few, I am certain will someday become classics in the field.
The one thing that Lieutenant Caunitz, ret., must do in his works, and that I
must do in mine, is be 100% accurate when it comes to dealing with police
procedures. The reason? We've got a lot of working and former cops out there
who are going to critique the books with a very critical eye and will let us
know quite vociferously if we make any mistakes.
A number of mystery writers who don't have cop experience do some very
accurate work with police procedure (crime scene processing, chain of command
and station routine). In her novels Hard Ball, Hard Tack, Hard Luck, Hard Women and Hard Case, it's clear that Chicago author Barbara D'Amato has gone on ride-alongs with cops and is a good friend of a certain Chicago cop, whose identity most of you amateur sleuths and law enforcement professionals out there can probably deduce without much effort. New England author Kate Clark Flora (Chosen for Death) does an excellent job of characterizing a Maine State Trooper in her books.
It kind of comes down to one thing if you're writing a mystery with cops in
It: Be accurate. The law enforcement profession is just that: a profession.
There is a course of study and state certification required to join and
minimum standards for consideration. We have procedures which are often
codified and must be followed, whether it be for the investigation of a
homicide or writing a parking ticket. And although it was a good ploy in
earlier works of fiction, I don't think there are too many dumb cops around
anymore. So, if you're writing a mystery and there's a cop in it, check your
facts. If you don't know, I'm sure you can find a cop to ask.
BOOKS MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Murder on the Orient Express
The Lady in the Lake
The Maltese Falcon
The First Deadly Sin
One Police Plaza
Chosen for Death
Police Lieutenant Hugh Holton is a 30-year veteran of the Chicago Police
Department. He lives in Chicago.
A HUGH HOLTON READING LIST
Presumed Dead, 1994
Windy City, 1995
Chicago Blues, 1996
Violent Crimes, 1997
Red Lightning, 1998
The Left Hand of God, 1999